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May Benatar, Ph.D., L.C.S.W. Headshot

Embracing Mystery

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My friend, Dr. D., a professor of social psychology told me that she quoted something to her class that I said a hundred years ago. She was lecturing to her class on the subject of "cognitive dissonance." Wikipedia defines cognitive dissonance: "Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance."

Dr, D. recalled asking me, way back then, how I reconciled my interest in astrology with my evidence-based practice as a clinician. My answer, she remembers, was, "I see no need to reconcile them." She told her class this was a good example of someone who could tolerate a fair amount of "cognitive dissonance."

I, of course, have no recollection of this conversation. But Dr. D.'s example does point to something that separates me from lots of folks I know -- and that's the room I make for "mystery," that which makes no logical sense, cannot be seen, touched, tasted or smelled or proven directly or indirectly and yet seems to be there.

A vivid example is the testimony of many individuals working in hospice care who report that sometimes up to three days before death, their patients appear to be reaching for someone or seeing someone or hearing someone from "the other side." My neighbor, a women who classified herself as non-religious, an atheist, not even spiritually inclined, reported that her mother, at death's door, raised her paralyzed arm to reach for someone, presumably her dead father. She had no way to account for how her mother who had suffered a stroke on one side several years before had lifted that arm. But it did happen.

In this culture we lack a paradigm that can embrace, no less explain such phenomena. But probably almost all of my readers can think of some example of "mystery" in their lives. If you can't perhaps its because you have too rapidly dismissed a phenomena that you could not explain.

For many years I had a client who claimed to be connected to another dimension. I knew her very well, she was not psychotic. She had been severely traumatized throughout her childhood. Psychic or paranormal phenomena are not uncommon among individuals who have suffered extreme cruelty. Clinicians report this both formally and informally.

My patient's reported phenomena was that she dreamt of spiritual beings in another dimension who had messages for her. At other times it was during waking consciousness that she received guidance. They guided her and they chided her. They instructed her about her life, her therapy, her healing process. The counsel was invariably wise. If she followed the advice it led her in the direction of healing and wholeness. She frequently resisted. The counsel was difficult to implement and went against the grain, it would cause pain.

Of course one could argue these were her own wise thoughts, or an internalization of my view point. That, however, was not how she experienced it, and I had to make room that there really was a mystery here. More than once I wished I had thought of the counsel, myself. These beings seemed smarter and more far-sighted than I.

My position as her therapist was to be consistently agnostic. I neither believed nor disbelieved. But I supported these "advisors." And I was not above calling on whatever forces were at work here to support the direction we wanted to go.

What was much more challenging, however, was dealing with what my patient knew about me through the spiritual advisors. I had no explanation for these phenomena. She knew things she could not have Googled or learned from any another source -- news items that only my immediate family had access to. Sometimes the news was joyous, sometimes it was profoundly sad. I could never explain her clairvoyance. I did not dismiss it as mind reading either. I could only receive it, and I believe it enlarged my spirit to do so.

It has always seemed to me that dismissing mysterious phenomena, those that don't fit our existing paradigms, is rather narrow-minded, irrational, and at bottom unscientific.

Being able to live with the mysterious only enriches us.